Landscape architect or garden designer?
What exactly does the garden designer do? What kind of skills should he possess? How can it be useful to contact a professional specialized in the design of outdoor spaces?
The fact that there are multiple definitions of this profession leaves margins of uncertainty about the actual role played by those involved in designing parks and gardens.
The name of ‘green architect’ or ‘landscape architect’ seems to mostly hint at the solely designing activity for this profession, suggesting that it is a branch of architecture aimed at the external spaces of the house, public spaces or landscape arrangements of a larger scale.
This is certainly not a wrong perspective, which among other things rather faithfully describes my own approach to the design of the garden and landscape.
It is a vision of the garden as a ‘built’ entity, directly dependent on the architecture albeit with very specific peculiarities. The garden is therefore seen as a space in close dialogue with the works built around it, aimed at expanding the idea of ‘living’ outside the buildings.
This vision of landscape architecture as a ‘sister’ of architecture tout court, in other words a declination of architecture made with different means of expression, represents a very important strand in the history of the garden, from the Roman age to the Renaissance, up to twentieth-century modernism.
Dan Kiley himself, one of the greatest masters of the modern garden of the twentieth century, saw no difference between the architecture of buildings and the design of parks and gardens. Both aim to create spaces in relation to the people who will use them, spatial entities built by man for man, filling the shapeless void prior to the design intervention.
On the contrary, the definition of ‘garden designer’ hints at the idea of ‘furnishing’, of ‘decorating’ a space outside the house. Just replace ‘interior designer’ with the phrase that refers to the garden, and you’re done.
In my opinion this is a more misleading description than the previous one, since it seems to allude to design work as essentially limited to creating an ‘environment’.
The Anglo-Saxon definition of garden designer is in fact linked to the English naturalist garden, or more precisely to the arts & crafts garden, to the cottage garden represented iconically by the mixed border, fruit of the taste of Gertrude Jekill.
The garden would therefore be seen as a place characterized by the plants that are introduced into it, a space of sentiment rather than reason, which is the prerogative of a gardener and a botanist more than an architect.
The suggestion could be that, before starting the realization, it is sufficient to draw some sketches or watercolors aimed at providing an emotional idea of garden to which you want to give life and at defining the plants that will be used to achieve the desired atmosphere.
So this definition completely ignores the design aspect of the creation of gardens, which seems instead to be all-encompassing in the definition of landscape architect.
First of all the garden project
In reality the above definitions, although correct, are partial; they describe some aspects of the profession but do not give a global vision. First of all it should be reiterated that the garden must be designed.
Just like you do with a building, it is essential to have a project that clearly outlines how the garden will be structured.
You will want to have a clear picture of the distribution of spaces, the usability of the environments, the appearance of the finished work and a good estimate that establishes costs and timing of the realization.
All this is also valid for the garden; I would even say to a greater extent.
The garden is in fact the place of freedom, but at the same time it is closely linked to the context in which it is made.
It is a place of freedom as its spaces do not have a well-defined use, except for specific environments such as the vegetable garden, the children’s play area, the pool area, etc. .. For the rest, the garden leaves us free to give vent to our creativity.
Therefore, the aesthetic aspect becomes an essential value since the garden escapes practical purposes and is not strictly necessary.
To quote Pietro Porcinai, the garden is the place of contemplation. In opposition to the worship of the useful that characterizes our age, the garden does not produce but creates.
But beauty, contrary to what one might think, does not arise spontaneously. On the contrary, it is the result of a design idea that takes into account all the aspects characterizing the spirit of a place and that is developed in a coherent way.
The inspiration does not fall from the sky but arises from the ground, that is, from the design work directly linked to the shape of the place where we are operating. It is the place itself that contains its potential in its nucleus: it is up to us to express them by drawing and extrapolating the form underlying the raw material.
This is the reason why the garden is strongly linked to the specific conditions of the context in which it is made. Factors such as the orography of the place, the exposure to the sun, the climate and the views of the surrounding landscape, strongly condition the structure and appearance of the garden and make each garden different from the other.
As a consequence, if we want to achieve the desired freedom of use of the garden notwithstanding the constraints given by the specific factors of a given place, it is necessary to develop a project as an essential element on which to base the creation of our space.
Who is the designer of the Green
The importance of a project that clearly defines the structure of the garden taking into account the context in which it operates, could suggest that an architect can perform this task very well.
Indeed, as long as an architect is expert in the knowledge of plants or the living materials that he will use for the creation of the garden, he will surely be able to do an excellent job.
Very often, however, architects lack exactly a real knowledge of the materials and elements that make up the garden. In particular, to quote again Pietro Porcinai, our most illustrious master of the landscape: ‘the most beautiful gardens were constructed when the greatest artists did not refuse to get dirty with the earth and deal with plants and botany’.
Landscape architecture is a matter having very specific peculiarities: it is very difficult to operate simultaneously in the architecture of buildings and of exteriors. The mindset that guides the intervention of the professional is different in the two areas, and in fact scrupulous architects very seldom push their design idea outside the built artifacts.
One might think that the gardener or the botanist, or even the designer are able to design a garden.
In this case, considerations opposite to those just made apply. The gardener and in general those who are more experienced in plants, will have a more intimate knowledge of the materials to be used in the garden, but will be lacking in the field of drawing and design.
In such case the garden is often reduced to a set of plants placed in a completely unstructured context. That is, there is no overall layout, a unitary place in which the plant elements are inserted.
The designer, on the other hand, will be more able to give an atmosphere to the garden but, creating environment after environment, will lack the overall look that makes the garden an organic space in which all the parts are in relationship and dialogue with each other.
Both of these figures will hardly consider the modeling of the terrain, the shaping of new spaces, as an initial element of the creation of each garden.
This is why the garden designer goes to position himself at the intersection of two worlds: that of architecture and that of gardening.
Therefore it must have skills in both areas, because the garden is actually at the crossroads between architecture and nature.
So the designer is not simply an architect, much less a gardener or a draftsman.
The figure of the designer of green spaces must have architectural skills for the design phase, technical skills for the layout and structural part of the garden, knowledge of agronomy and botany for the correct use of plant elements.
Last but not least, the architect of the green must be able to manage a construction site, coordinating all the craftsmen involved in the realization of a complex work such as the external arrangement of a public place, a park or a garden.
The skills of the green designer
It is clear, from what has been said, why it is necessary to turn to a green designer.
The figure of the green architect can guarantee us the creation of a garden that falls within the set budget, that fully meets our needs, that satisfies us with its aesthetic appearance and that, finally, is manageable in economic terms over the years.
But what preparation should the garden designer have?
Only a person who has competence in the different areas involved in the creation of a garden can play the complex role that begins with the survey, develops in the project and ends with the direction of the construction works and assist us in the management of the garden just implanted.
Skills in all these areas require a targeted course of study.
The starting point from which to approach garden design can be a degree in architecture, rather than engineering or agronomy. The point of arrival, however, can only be a curriculum of specific studies focused on the world of ornamental greenery.
Nowadays there are specialized degree courses in landscape architecture, but also a good educational offer by specialized schools, which allow an effective alternation between study and practical experience carried out in the field.
What we consider fundamental is that the green designer possesses a knowledge that is not limited to the design area. Two other elements are crucial for the training of the good garden designer.
The first one is the knowledge of plants and gardening techniques.
It is not possible to operate without knowing the material we are called to use. Without a thorough knowledge of how to carry out the work of creating a garden, or without ‘getting your hands dirty’ by participating in the work of the gardeners who are called to carry out the project, you will never have the true perception of the practical consequences of design choices made in the studio.
Only those who are able to evaluate the tangible implications of certain design solutions in terms of implementation and maintenance, will be able to avoid giving life to solutions that are unnecessarily expensive and unable to overcome the challenge of time.
The life of the garden simply begins with its realization. A good designer must be able to create a world that proves resilient and sustainable over the years to come.
The second crucial aspect is knowing the history of the garden and the places where it is actually revealed.
Any profession that aims to draw from the heights of art cannot avoid comparison with the examples of the past.
The art of the garden, like any other expression of human culture, accompanies the evolution of human society by interpreting its vision of the world since many centuries.
Without a knowledge of the great models of the past and the philosophy that underpinned them, we will not be able to propose contemporary models that are able to express the feelings of our society.
The inspiration from the masterpieces of the great landscape masters, allows us to add a very important element to our professional baggage, that is, ‘to form an eye and a spirit capable of judging beauty’ as Ercole Silva said.
The purpose of those who want to carry out their profession as an attempt of artistic expression, must be focused on creating works that avoid the merely decorative intent and that do not slavishly follow the fashions of the moment.
This is only possible if we ourselves have a vision of the world, if our work is supported by an ethical tension that goes beyond the practical aspects, however important, of our work.
The examples of the past must serve us precisely to enter the tradition of those who, before us, created gardens aiming at something that went beyond the realization of a simply pleasant and functional work.
So we must take the invitation of the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, who exhorted us to behave like this: ‘do not follow in the footsteps of the ancients, look for what they were looking for! ‘